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Book Review – China’s Reforming Churches: Mission, Polity, and Ministry in the Next Christendom

Bruce P. Baugus, ed. China’s Reforming Churches: Mission, Polity, and Ministry in the Next Christendom. Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014. 320 pp. $20.00.

CRCAmongst Christians with a passion for missions, China is on center stage. We certainly recognize the strategic mission field that is this nation of approximately 1.35 billion people, and tremendous evangelistic fruit is being seen as a staggering number are daily becoming Christian. While vehement evangelistic efforts surely need to continue, especially since many of China’s minority groups are considered unreached/unengaged, the astounding growth rate of the church poses critical and urgent needs in relation to church development. In this manner, China’s Reforming Churches is a unique book in that it focuses more on ecclesiology than missiology, more on building up the church than on evangelism (though of course these are connected). “Indeed, the proper goal of the church’s mission has never been just to announce the good news to those who have not heard or to call unbelievers to faith and repentance; the church’s mission also includes establishing a well-ordered church in every land for the welfare of God’s people and perpetuation of the ministry” (17).

Even more specifically, the particular ecclesiology espoused in this book is the presbyterian1/ Reformed variety. China’s Reforming Churches is written from the conviction that the need for church development in China is largely the need for the development of a healthy and robust presbyterianism through an understanding of a biblical theology of the church as articulated within the Reformed tradition. As such, this book has a more narrow focus and target audience. I’ve read some reviews criticizing this narrow focus and asserting that this book would be more helpful and have a wider audience if it were not written from this perspective; however, this focus and perspective was intentional and therefore cannot legitimately be criticized. This narrow focus is actually what drew me to this book; general books about missions work in China abound, but I am not aware of any other book that looks at the reformation that is going on in China. In fact, I didn’t even know that such a reformation was underway!

Reformed theology is being disseminated and embraced throughout China; Reformed confessions of faith are being translated or written and adopted; new attention is being paid to worship, preaching, and leadership; local congregations and in a few cases entire networks are being organized or reorganized along presbyterian lines; Reformed seminaries are being established throughout the country; a Chinese presbyterian polity has been drawn up; presbyteries are being formed in various places and are in communication with one another; ministers are being trained, examined, and ordained; and the great works of the Reformed tradition are being brought into open circulation. All of this is just the beginning of an attempt by Chinese pastors and church leaders to meet the needs of God’s people and lay a firm foundation for the future. Despite their vigorous efforts, every one of them “would agree that the church is struggling to keep up with the demand for trained leaders and other resources” as the gospel continues to spread and grow in the world’s largest mission field

(Baugus 22-23)

The above quote is likely to have shattered most of your conceptions of Christianity in China. We typically think of the Church in China as a persecuted church, where non-registered house churches have no freedom to congregate and to practice their faith and where unthinkable physical persecution is the norm and not the exception. This is why many of us don’t see presbyterianism (or any highly formalized training or organization, for that matter) as possible in China. However, China’s Reforming Churches frequently corrects our erroneous presuppositions and reveals that within China there is a surprising amount of freedom for Christians and even for the officially illegal unregistered churches. It’s an entirely different story when foreigners are involved, and the book goes into more detail about this.

China’s Reforming Churches is an excellent survey of presbyterianism in China – from its history (part 1) to the current landscape (part 2) to current challenges and opportunities (part 3) to how China’s reforming churches are appropriating the Reformed tradition to their context (part 4). Birthed out of a conference of Presbyterian and Reformed Christians interested in presbyterianism in China, the content in this book is from a combination of fine American scholars and Chinese reforming pastors. China’s Reforming Churches provides much valuable insight into China in general, as well as what God is doing there in a general sense. With the awareness that this book is from a presbyterian perspective, any Christian with an interest in the Church in China would benefit from this book, though non-presbyterians will disagree with the fundamental driving conviction of the book.

However, those who identify with the Reformed tradition in any way would greatly enjoy and benefit from this book. Though I’m not Presbyterian, I was incredibly encouraged by this book and the reformation sweeping through the Church in China. I had been aware of small pockets being exposed to Reformed theology and publishing efforts like the Robert Morrison Project, but I did not know that there was any type of widespread reformation going on. My conception of the Church in China, to my shame, was one that largely consisted of low ecclesiology and bad theology (through no fault of the believers, but due to persecution, lack of theological resources and training, and overwhelming growth). I am tremendously encouraged by this book and by what God is doing in China’s reforming churches. Soli Deo Gloria!

1 Presbyterianism is written with a lower-case p in this review because of the distinction made in the book between the simple institutional form of church outlined in Scripture and particular Presbyterian traditions/denominations (indicated by capital P) that apply the basic principles of presbyterianism.

PurchaseWestminster | Amazon

I received a free copy from the publisher via Cross Focused Reviews in exchange for an unbiased review.

 

 

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4 Comments

  1. rgbrao

     /  July 12, 2014

    So I’ve kind of known a bit about what you wrote up above on account of knowing Xtns who worked there, friends from there and my own pops who once went to Shanghai. While there is tension here and there, there is also a good bit of freedom that can be found and this freedom is quite often understated.

    Anyway anytime I read these sort of things I can’t help but compare to India. And so here is my 2 paisas worth…

    ~ I think that in India, anything that is highly formalized would not be very possible, persecution or not. This is because India – the land itself – is very unstructured. Just go for a drive out in the streets and you will see it all. Roll down the window at a traffic jam and you will see a camel side by side with your car and you will find out that the cause of the jam was a cow sitting in the street taking a mid-day break. This is just the beginning. From street to mind, chaos with a comical streak is the norm there.

    ~ Christianity is spreading however it is a good bit un-formalized… like for example graffiti. Go to Chennai now(!) and you will see Jesus paintings on the back of rickshawas, Xtn symbols on the side of cabs and Christian verses written all over the walls of many houses, big and small, rich and poor. There is – smack dab – Christian scrawl all over the Hindu sprawl. How’d that happen??? and as if overnight!

    So I guess what I am trying to say is that perhaps one reason for the phenomena up above is that China is a highly structured society to begin with. And like dissolves in like … Presby-ism, Anglicanism, or other highly structured orgs will fit in well given freedom and time. However I am suspicious that such a fit would not happen in India even with all the freedom in the world. I’m no sociologist here… nor an academic – just a suspicion.

    Ciao!
    ~ Raj

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    • Raj, sorry for the late reply. I didn’t have a chance to reply after I first read your comment.

      Thanks for sharing your perspective from India! I can see what you’re saying, but I also don’t think it’s as black and white as “this will not work because of the culture.” While it’s not right to impose Western Christianity as THE form of Christianity, if a certain ecclesiology is biblical then efforts should be made to implement it, regardless of culture. The Kingdom IS countercultural (and trans-cultural).

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  1. Book Log – July 2014 |
  2. Favorite Books of 2014 |

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